There is a mystique about the world of the flight attendant that has prevailed since the dawn of the first cabin attendants. This began in 1930, when Ellen Church became the first “stewardess”, for United Airlines, and women and men have been seeking this position with diligence ever since. The mere mention of the flight attendant job conjures up images of jetting away to an exotic Caribbean Island or spending a week skiing in the majestic Alps. Of course the job itself is not always glamorous, but most people do not possess the mobility of the flight attendant to see the world while they are still young enough to enjoy it. What is it about a flight attendant that makes little kids longingly stare and adults charmed and envious? Could it be the lifestyle and freedom to jet away to faraway places? The uniform? The star quality of these chosen few?
Maybe it is all these things, and more. I remember viewing a children’s program at about age 6, seeing the flight attendant standing in the doorway of a large airplane, wearing a military- looking uniform, with shiny wings on her jacket. How elegant and important she looked working on the airplane! I decided right then and there that this was what I wanted to be someday. To me, it wasn’t just a job – it was a life!
Initially, the first cabin attendants were men who helped maintain the integrity of the airplanes while swatting flies and lifting mailbags. Then in the 1930’s female attendants were hired as stewardesses or hostesses and worked on piston engine or propeller aircraft, such as the Curtiss Condor. Their duties included
providing sandwiches and thermoses of water and passing out gum and cotton to provide comfort for passengers’ ears. These flight attendants originally were registered nurses, but this requirement was dropped in the 1940’s. The job was now considered glamorous and even though many young women wanted to become airline stewardesses, only a few were chosen. In those days when stewardesses got married, they were terminated.
By the 1960’s, men were on the job. United Airlines hired eight men from Hawaii to fly their Hawaiian routes. As a result of the influx of males from that point, Eastern Airlines created the job title of “flight attendant”. The job held wide appeal to men and women and it became commonplace for flight attendants to be male or female, young or older, married or single, any race, even parents. The salaries were beginning to climb – airline fever had claimed more lives!
Once you have “the fever”, it will be with you for the rest of your life; there is no cure, and anyone who has never experienced a flight attendant career will never comprehend just how powerful it is. Flight crews are very close comrades as a result of having this unique passion in common. There is a wide belief that the job is a daring and unusual dream experience; flight attendants are considered to be gutsy individuals who regard the world as their playground.
Of course, those of us who fly know that in reality the job is hard work, sometimes with long hours and grouchy customers. It is difficult to find the glamour in your job when you are down on your hands and knees in the galley, going through tray carriers looking for someone’s lower dentures they left on a tray! Or working a 14-hour day due to a mechanical delay. Or dealing with a planeload of airsick passengers during heavy turbulence. These things are all part and parcel of a flight attendant’s job. But the fun and excitement far outweighs these things, and I don’t know many flight attendants who would trade it all in for a nine-to-fiver!
The charisma has as much to do with the look of flight attendants as the places they travel. These sharply dressed men and women who serve you meals or beverages in the air seem to be the epitome of romance; what will they do when they are off duty – shop in Rome? Party in Frankfurt? Catch glass beads at a Mardi Gras parade? Tour the Pyramids or Catacombs? What celebrities do they commonly meet and what interesting stories could they tell about these people?
Each airline has a unique uniform, smartly tailored, complete with the airline logo and wings. Wings are earned, and flight attendants go to a lot of trouble to get them! Training is sometimes long and arduous. Flight attendant trainees must not only be strong and resourceful but intelligent, healthy and energetic to graduate.
Possibly the most important component of the aura of mystery surrounding the flight attendant is the fact that that which is difficult to obtain is often the most coveted. Not just anyone can become a flight attendant; thousands of flight attendant wannabes apply for these jobs every month, but few are chosen. Statistics show that on average, less than 10% of those who apply are selected for the job. What separates the people chosen from the ones left behind? That is part of the magic, and sometimes it is not something that can be even put into words. After meeting the requirements, applicants must convey a certain persona to the recruiter, and the recruiters are adept in discovering those who have what it takes.
No one can say for sure just what the charm of a flight attendant is. But I remember the look on a young man’s face on one of my flights. He was taking his first airplane ride and gazed up at me with wonder, and asked, “is this what you do for your job – meet people and fly to different places all the time? Kewl.”